Yesterday, at 10.47pm, I went viral.
It was absolutely terrifying.
I only went a little bit viral. I was not trending on the internet. But Stephen Fry retweeted the piece I wrote about Robin Williams, and for about ten minutes it felt like all hell was breaking loose.
A smashing packet of emotions broke over me. First of all, I was wildly excited that Stephen Fry, a man I admire keenly, whose books I have read, whose comedy has made me laugh since I was a raw teen, even knew who I was, let alone liked something I had written. I had been awarded that finest prize, the Fry challenge cup, and in my mazy mind I did a cantering lap of honour, all flags flying.
Then, complete strangers started saying kind things. My heart swelled and warmed. I was Sally Field. They like me. They really like me.
The strangers soothed me, because I had been fretting about the whole shooting match. I worry always when I address any serious subject, and I twist myself up into a pretzel about the rights and wrongs of writing about the death of a stranger. The fear is that it is an intrusive, even rude, thing to do. The danger is that one is doing the empathy tap dance. Look at me, caring. It should go without saying that everyone who admired Williams and who laughed like a drain at his comedic brilliance would feel sad. I had not let it go without saying. I had said, as if somehow I was important.
Then, just as I was smiling in astonishment, the terror hit.
I inhabit a very small, very private part of the internet. I have a tiny, gentle group of Dear Readers, who know all about my equine obsession, the ludicrous voices in my head, the enchanting Lurcher antics of Stanley the Dog, my ardent love of these blue hills. They put up with me with gentle grace, and seem to understand and forgive my shortcomings.
Now, someone had thrown open a door onto a huge new world, with a crowd of unknown people in it. They would expect something. I could not just tell them about the dancing canter I had this morning on the red mare, as the swallows practised their low flying in the hayfields, so that I whooped with joy into the bright air. They would want their money back. Mare, schmare, they would say; give us the good stuff.
The fact that this whole odd phenomenon happened on Twitter was even more worrying. I suddenly had a boatload of new followers, on the strength of that post on death and depression and the frailty of the human heart. But I use Twitter almost exclusively to indulge my passion for racing, with the odd grumble about people not answering the question on the Today programme. I had sold these new arrivals a pup. They would go back through my timeline and be baffled to find endless musings on the 3.30 at Kempton, intemperate shouts of joy about the beauty and power and grace of Kingman, and wild expressions of love for the genius that is Ryan Moore. Ryan what? they would say, scratching their heads.
The last tweet I posted before the Twitter storm hit was this: ‘Quite adorable. Royal Connoisseur, 2nd and 3rd in virtually all his races, pricks his ears in amazed delight as he sees the winning post.’
Royal Connoisseur is not a famous horse, for all his rather grand name. He is a bay gelding who has never won a race. He was running in a maiden at Thirsk, on an unremarkable cloudy evening, with £3000 going to the winner. I was particularly taken with him, because when he saw the winning post coming towards him, a wide sward of green turf before his eyes instead of the equine hindquarters he was used to looking at, he really did lift his head and prick his ears in triumph. A look of delighted amazement spread over his handsome face.
Horses are like humans in one way: confidence can make all the difference to them. They can grow demoralised if they are always the bridesmaid. Once they’ve got their head in front, their old herd instincts call to them, and they grow in stature. It’s a touching thing to watch. But it’s not exactly life and death and the whole damn thing. Those poor new followers, I thought. What will they think?
I had, for those ten minutes, a fleeting flash of what it must be like to be famous. I’ve always thought fame was something I would not wish on my worst enemy. Years ago, John Updike wrote that it was a mask that eats the face, and that hard line has haunted me ever since. You are no longer your own person, but belong to the world. People suddenly have a sense of entitlement, and an odd intimacy, as if they know you. The famous are quite often put into a box, and if they dare to jump out of that box they are ruthlessly punished. They are judged, and found wanting. Even if they are adored, the adoration comes with caveats: the expectations must be met. They are tall poppies, and every armchair critic is sharpening the scythe.
Luckily, the internet moves at warp speed. It soon settled down and went to shine its light on someone else. I could return to quiet normality.
I was also very lucky because the sudden rush of people responding to the post did so with lovely humanity and generosity of spirit. I met only kindness, in that frightening new space. It was as if they were all saying: it is all right, we come in peace.
The caravan will move on. It is already trundling off into the middle distance. I shall go back to tweeting about the 2.15 at Hamilton, and writing of the dearness of my red duchess, and offering goofy little slivers of my very ordinary life.
The fear subsides. It was, looking back, rather a lovely moment. I wrote something heartfelt, and unknown humans responded from their own good hearts. Out in the brave new world, I found all the same kindness of strangers that I encounter in the old world. Fortune smiled. I smile back.
Stan the Man and Red the Mare, with tractor:
She really was light as thought today, all willingness and generosity. I hardly had to ask. She just gave and gave.
Then, after the ride, I went up to do my HorseBack UK work. I watched veterans who are missing limbs learn to ride. This is always a useful corrective, not just because of the Perspective Police, but because they find me, in the nicest possible way, slightly absurd, and mob me up with glee:
Then, as if the universe was making sure that I did not get above myself, after my glancing moment in the sun, Patrick the Miniature Horse asked if I would scratch his quarters. This, it turns out, is his dearest wish. It would have been rude to say no. So there I was, on my knees, with a tiny arse in my face, which seemed about right. ‘I know my place,’ I shouted, as the shutter clicked:
The flappy wings of hubris have no chance, faced with that.
And one final word - of thanks, to all of you who came to this quiet space yesterday, and generously wrote your own words, and made me smile and smile with your kindness and grace.